"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Monday, December 28, 2009

Arab Culture & Jesus' Example for Me

So I ordered this book, Miniskirts, Mothers & Muslims, that Stacy recommended on her blog a few months ago. I'd written it down and when I placed my Amazon order recently, I sought this book since she told me I should read it. I finally got it and started reading it two days ago. The author, Christine A. Mallouhi, is an Australian Christian who married a Christian Arab man who grew up in a conservative Muslim household. Christine has lived many years in Arab countries and her book is aimed at people like me (basically Christian westerners) who have the opportunity to live in Arab cultures. In no way does she degrade Arab culture or make it seem inferior. Actually she is blatantly honest about how westerners are often perceived and how the ways we dress and act while in Arab countries can either confirm what they already believe or surprise them.

One example is when the author was mourning her father's death and a comment in a hair salon made her start crying, the Arab woman exclaimed, "Oh, this Westerner has feelings!" (pg. 120) The author had just explained that Arabs often considered us "cold." Actually I can relate to this because my Arab friend has often jokingly asked if I were a true Westerner since I am quite emotional. I suppose he thought all Westerners were not easily moved to tears. So I joke back that I must be part Middle Eastern and just don't know it! :-)

Some things that the author shares are not exactly new to my knowledge, however, reading them in black and white made me feel appreciation for my own culture. One, for sure, is the honor killings which happen on occasion. And how mere gossip or thinking that you dishonored the family can cause your father or brother or cousin to be out to kill you. But the thing that struck me too was the way males and females do not interact on the streets. For instance, Ms. Mallouhi said she is very careful how she talks to male friends. On the streets, they may give a nod of greeting or a curt hello, but never stop to chat for the fear of others thinking something improper is going on colors the way they treat one another. She gave these examples not to say they were wrong, but just letting us know how things are different in some cultures.

I'll admit this makes me feel strange because where I live it's so normal to stop and chat with people you know from church, work, the neighborhood or school -- even if they are male acquaintances. Shoot, I even stop to talk to strangers from time to time. That's just the way Southern culture is - we start conversations with people browsing the Walmart aisle with us or standing in line at the grocery store. In fact on Christmas Eve I met a man from West Virginia (WV) while we were waiting to pay for our purchases. I'd let a lady with a short order go before me and when the WV man got ready to leave, he turned back to say goodbye and wish me a Merry Christmas and I told him to be safe traveling to see his family in WV. That's fairly typical behavior where I'm from so not being able to chat with male friends in the Arab world would take some getting used to.

So while I'm thinking of that and how I find it unfriendly and stupid that gossip (which is sinful itself!) makes things this way, I keep reading and my anger bubble has no choice but deflate when I read this:

"If secular and Muslim women can give up personal preferences and submit to Islamic customs that they do not agree with, surely Christian women can do the same for our testimony. Christ left all his glory to become one of us, in order to show us the way home to the Father. We have an opportunity to lay down self for the sake of Christ. We have an opportunity to follow in the steps of the One who laid aside everything to enable us to receive his word." (pg. 119)

Ah, Jesus again! Well, when you put it like that I reckon I can skip talking to my male friends to stop the gossipers out there!

Ha, ha....reviewing my trip to Damascus in light of this book, I am now wondering what kind of thoughts the Syrians had about me because I treated my Arab friends just about like I'd treat my male friends back home. Oooops! Thankfully Damascus doesn't seem as uptight about things as some Middle Eastern areas. Not that I've been other places to compare, but from what I've read and heard they just seem a bit more relaxed than, say, Saudi Arabia. Hmm, but maybe I'm wrong about that. Oh well.


Achelois said...

It depends from one Arab culture to another, I'd say. Men and women are very relaxed each other in Egypt or Oman (Omani women come out as much stronger than the men) and in the UAE. Yes, Saudi Arabia is much different and so is Bahrain to some extent.

But generally in some Eastern cultures people don't really chat with strangers like I find Americans to do. Americans are super friendly :) I love this about ya'll.

Oh and about the emotional thing - maybe it is confused with the British "stiff upper-lip", we teh Brits don't like to show our feelings openly and I know that my Arab mother was always perceived as the drama queen by my English side of the family :D Also, its the funerals that are so quiet in the US and UK; in South Asian and Arab cultures funerals are loud and very emotional. So are the weddings when the bride cries bucket loads :D

Wafa' said...

i think it's an interesting book to read, and from what i have read in here, i think she is right about most of it. life in general is completely different from one place to another and in the middle east from one country to another.

Wrestling With Religion said...

I agree with Achelois, I think all westerners are being tarred with the same brush and it originates from the perception of the British as cold people. Personally I think it's mainly people from the south of England - the rest of us are much more expressive! ;)

In a lot of cultures men and women do not become close friends like we do in the west, unless it is leading to more than that. This is something I came across in Malawi. But in Muslim cultures separation is usually even more strict. It took me a while to get used to the idea that I wasn't going to get to know my husband's friends. But I did get used to it and I don't feel offended at being ignored by them any more. Mostly I would rather talk to women anyway.

Susanne said...

I love reading you ladies' comments! :-)

First off, I read this post to my Arab friend, Samer, and he asked me about this "Christian Arab" who grew up in a Muslim household since that's kind of an oddity where he lives (Syria). Anyway, when I told him the husband's name (Christine mentions it in her book), he said, "Oh, Mazhar Mallouhi is the guy Nabeel told you about!"

Nabeel is the Christian Arab man who now lives in the USA. He is the one who gave me that brilliant "turn the other cheek" interpretation that I put on WWR's blog a few days back. Anyway, I looked Mazhar up online and saw the Wikipedia article says he calls himself a "Sufi Muslim follower of Christ." Made me think of Achelois for some reason. :)

Here is the page about him for anyone interested.


Nabeel told me about him a few months back as I believe they are friends, but I did not make the connection when I bought this book! Small world!

Oh, here is Nabeel's website. I actually "met" him through a book he wrote. When I e-mailed him for the addendum, we became friends and have kept in touch. He's been a great help to me in relating to my Muslim and Arab friends. He's about 65. Oh and his wife is British. :)


Now on to your comments . . .

Susanne said...

Achelois, thanks for the explanation on those things. I had to smile when you described how your mom was considered the "drama queen" because of her being emotional. How sweet. :) Yes, I can say that we are more reserved as far as expressing emotion at funerals and weddings. True, true!

When I read this post to Samer he said that he and many of his friends/family are fine with us talking like we did when Andrew and I were in Syria. Of course there are those more rigid about the no mixing thing, but it seems we were fine in what we did. That's good. I felt really welcomed by everyone and hated to think I left some blatantly wrong impression. Truly the people I met in Syria were *fantastic!* I can't say enough good about them.

Oh, also maybe it's not just the British. Samer met with some guy from...I want to say The Netherlands who told Samer and Basheer himself that his people didn't express much emotion. Basically Peter admitted they were "cold" and Samer agreed that Peter was MUCH "colder" than me and Andrew. Also Samer finds the Germans more reserved and hard to get to know. (He's lived there now for 3 months.)

On the other hand, my American uncle lived in Germany for 3 years and found the Germans warm and friendly. So maybe the Germans were nicer to my uncle for some reason or maybe my friendly uncle just reached out to them in a way that made them loosen up around him. I don't know. When I asked my uncle about this, he suggested the Germans were more "cold" to Samer because they (in his thinking) aren't really crazy about Muslims due to the influx of Turks that have come to Germany. Although they have come legally, apparently many Germans are not crazy about them and my uncle has heard them say things about how the Turks need to stop having so many children and such things. It's like the Germans NEED immigrants since they are not reproducing fast enough, but they don't really WANT outsiders. It's a precarious relationship.

I'm wondering how others have perceived Germans since my uncle's and Samer's experiences have been so different. Samer said they are polite and helpful and treat him well, they are just not warm and friendly and easy to get to know.

Boy, was this a long rabbit trail. :)

Wafa', thanks for what you added. You are right about the customs likely varying from one place to another. Likely I wouldn't have been able to mix with any male friends if I'd visited KSA. But, that's OK. I could spend more time with you! :-)

Sarah, thanks for what you added. Yeah, maybe mixing with guys/girls is more of a western thing. Hmmm. I mostly like talking to females at parties and gatherings, but I admit I like having the option of talking to male friends as well or sitting together as one big group and chatting.

Yeah, I met an older gentleman from England at the beach a few years back and found him really friendly. He talked to me quite a lot and I joked that he didn't hold to the reserved stereotype that I had of the British. He laughed and told me that he was from the country where the people were more friendly. :)

And, I've found you friendly so ...

I guess Westerners are just considered more reserved for some of the reasons Achelois mentioned. We don't tend to wail loudly at funerals so they think we are "cold."

I find it all so interesting. I really love culture differences like this. It's one of the reasons I've greatly enjoyed my friendship with Samer because I love learning more about his culture.

Thanks for what you all shared. Enjoyed it lots! :)

Wrestling With Religion said...

Thanks for those links, I should read some of their books!

My husband strongly dislikes the Germans. He has found them cold, but also kind of weird. (Not at all racist huh! ;) )

Actually I think northern Europeans in general are more cold, but down in the mediterranean regions they tend to be much more emotionally expressive.